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Avoiding Norovirus on Cruises

posted April 20, 2014

It’s the surefire cruise vacation ruiner no one wants to hear whispered onboard: norovirus. Year after year, cruise ships report outbreaks of the highly contagious gastrointestinal illness that sends passengers scrambling to the restroom. These reports of possible outbreaks spread like wildlife across news outlets.

The truth: cruise passengers are more likely to contract the norovirus away from their vacation than on it.

“Historic incidence rates of norovirus on cruise ships are very low — the overwhelming majority of outbreaks occur in land-based settings,” said David Pelkin, spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a group representing cruise lines and travel agents.

Seven norovirus outbreaks were reported on cruise ships to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013. Only four of those departed from the United States and involved 817 passengers. According to CLIA, this number represents only about .006% of total global passengers, down from .008% in 2012. Compare that to the 21 million reported norovirus cases across the United States, and the chances of contracting Norovirus while on vacation are slim.

The reason why passengers and cruise lines fear the potential for an outbreak has to do with the virus itself. The highly contagious bug causes severe gastrointestinal distress; infected passengers or crew can expect to be waylaid by extreme vomiting and diarrhea, along with other flu-like symptoms.

Norovirus is a problem for cruise lines to contain because it is transmitted in various ways: in air particles, by touching contaminated surfaces, or eating contaminated food or water. It is resistant to temperatures as high as 140F, meaning washing dishes or contaminated laundry in boiling water doesn’t necessarily kill it. Disinfecting an area is tricky, too. Alcohol-based sanitizers are ineffective are killing the norovirus. Savvy cruise passengers may bring Lysol® onboard to disinfect surfaces; note that Lysol® Disinfect Spray “Brand III” is effective at killing Norovirus, but the wipes are not.

Another problem with norovirus? It is mutating. Researchers identified a new strain called GII.4 Sydney in 2012 that quickly became the new predominant cause for norovirus outbreaks. GII.4 Sydney most recently appeared in the Explorer of the Seas outbreak in January 2014.

The good news is that cruise line procedures and practices are designed to prevent norovirus from taking hold. The highly regulated industry has strict rules regarding handling of food and onboard sanitization. Common areas and touched surfaces are disinfected everyday, from weights in the exercise room to the call buttons in the elevators.

“In the rare instances of outbreak, CLIA member lines have shown they are able to immediately employ numerous practices to mitigate its spread and treat ill passengers and crew,” Pelkin said. These practices include educating crew and passengers on proper hand hygiene, sanitizing contacted surfaces down to Scrabble game tiles, to amending self-service lines. Should an outbreak get out of hand, public health specialists and additional medical personnel are brought on board to assist. “On turnaround days, extra crew may spend additional time cleaning and disinfecting the ship with the CDC-recommended disinfectants from top to bottom before additional passengers board.”

If symptoms of gastrointestinal distress start to be reported onboard your next cruise, remember the best prevention is thorough hand washing with soap and water. Leave the area immediately if someone is sick in your vicinity and avoid the buffet areas. Should you experience symptoms, report your illness to the ship’s medical center and stay in your cabin to prevent sharing the potential norovirus with others on the cruise.

Better yet—if sick, don’t cruise! Call and see if other arrangements can be made. No one wants their cruise vacation ruined by illness.

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